Attending college at Western Michigan allowed me to be close to my Aunt Sandra and Uncle Joe who lived in Kalamazoo. My Aunt and Uncle run a private Pre-k through 8th grade school there affording me a unique opportunity to partner with them while completing my internship hours required through my WMU education college. I even got home cooked meals out of the deal.
Over the summers, I’d stay in K-Zoo and work at the local country club picking range balls and caring for the golf carts. I also worked odd jobs for my aunt and uncle for some extra cash and a chance to spend more time with family.
One particular job was unique…uniquely awful. It may have been the single worst assignment I have ever been given as an employee, daughter, friend, etc. Let me tell you about it.
My cousin, Aunt Sandra’s son, had previously owned a small gas station slash pizza joint on a road along a beautiful lake near Kalamazoo. At the time, he had allowed the shop to close. The decision to re-open or sell the location was still being debated therefore the shop sat frozen in time. It was in a perfect location for accessibility for boaters and jet skiers to fill up before hitting the lake for some weekend fun in the summers. But at this particular time it was dark and closed to the public.
One day my aunt recruited me to join her in cleaning the shop and to generally check on it’s maintenance. Mostly it seemed like a routine job to stop in and ensure all was well as the doors have been locked for a few weeks now. We walked the quiet shop filled with bagged chips still on the shelves and fun lake toys begging to be purchased to amuse kids ready to hit the beach. It was actually fun to be on the inside of a general store like this with the owner and the door closed. It felt special and secret. The lights remained off as we roamed the shop; the sunlight through the glass doors poured in lighting our way. As we looked around and straightened things up, nothing seemed terribly dirty and so the job seemed not to be extraordinarily taxing. That was until, we both spotted the ice cream freezer.
This is one of those fridges that sits horizontally on the ground. A patron would slide the top clear door to the right unsealing the freezer door to reach downward toward the ground to retrieve a special frozen treat for purchase. I realize, with the lights off, that this freezer is obviously not on. I thought, “that can’t be good.”
Upon approaching the freezer, I could tell instantly that this was going to be a big and awful project. Without even opening it, looking through the clear top door I could see that all the previously frozen items were now a mess of hot soup stewing in the bottom of this freezer. Once colorful child appealing deserts have now turned to a soup the color of cement grey and from the looks of it, just as thick. The once frozen chocolate eclairs, neon orange push-up pops, oreo cookie bars, rainbow Bomb Pops had all melted together as one. This new grey liquid now mixed with the containers that used to be sturdy cardboard when the treats were in their expected frozen state. The cardboard had soaked for so long in the grey mush of the dairy and sugars, that it had already begun to decompose. And this was just what it looked like.
Then, Aunt Sandra slid open the door.
I have never in my life smelled anything so foul. And mind you, I spent weeks of my life on a dairy farm growing up. The smell immediately and irreversibly filled the entire shop and was totally consuming. I gagged. I covered my mouth and nose. I gasped. I thought, “let’s just close that little lid back up and call someone else in here to clean that bad-boy.” My aunt had other plans.
Aunt Sandra (my mother’s oldest sister also raised on a dairy farm) walked around the shop for a few seconds and returned to the freezer with a couple of large plastic Coca Cola cups and a 5 gallon bucket. She said only the words, “get in there.”
I seriously thought, “this cannot be happening. I’m her niece. Does she have no mercy!?” The look on her face said only business. So, I took my plastic coke cup, took a deep breath, and dove in with my head and shoulders consumed within the freezer. My hair in a ponytail dangled with gravity towards the muck. My arm could then reach low enough to scoop up the gunk with the plastic cup allowing me to extract my torso from the freezer to unload my first scoop into the 5 gallon bucket. This one scoop demonstrated how many more scoops must be tackled for this job to be completed. I looked at the 5 gallon bucket and the half filled freezer to easily estimate that I would be scooping for a long time before this job would be complete. With the second scoop, I was forced to place my hand to my mouth as to not vomit into the grey goop. I was shouting to myself that a situation with vomit floating among the melted muck will be worse Al! Don’t vomit! Don’t vomit!
Meanwhile, my Aunt Sandra was right along side me also scooping the goop. She was not afraid. She was not gagging. She was determined and fearless. Each time I’d take a deep breath demonstrating repulsive feelings about this job, she’d just say, “get back in there.” And I did. Aunt Sandra could have been planting a garden of tulips if you didn’t know differently. She never cringed. She never slowed her pace or wiped her upper lip. She just got it done.
Aunt Sandra is a special person. She is a tough cookie and runs a tight ship but always with a giant grin and a spirited contagious laugh. Aunt Sandra is known for her skilled gardening and has created the most beautiful corner of Kalamazoo on her school’s campus for all who pass by to enjoy. She has six children all with children and Aunt Sandra serves as a mother hen to them all; even to her nieces and nephews. As a kid, one of my favorite reasons to spend time in Kalamazoo was because Aunt Sandra always had a Costco box of full size Snickers bars in her pantry for the taking. She is a giver, a matriarch, an example of work ethic and kindness.
That day, my head to waist dipped into the vat of disgusting refuse, I learned a lesson that could never have been learned from a book, a podcast, a blog, or a movie. I learned to do hard things. I learned to pick up my tools and get in there. I also learned it had an ending and I survived. All things are temporary.
In our roles, sometimes we are faced with our own version of the melted ice cream freezer. We have tasks and roles we would much rather walk away from than tackle. We all have surprises that come up in our daily operations that cause our calendar to be derailed and maybe our mood to alter from happy to miserable. Through meditation and mindfulness I have learned to have no fear, just like Aunt Sandra, because I know it will be over soon. Facing the difficulty, or standing in the muck, becomes easier when we remember it will be over…there is an end…this too is temporary. In that, there is no power of the awful task to steal my happiness or ability to move on. When recognizing that this is only a moment that is fleeting, we can retain our contentment instead of succumbing to the negative emotions the unfortunate task may provoke otherwise. And we can “get back in there.”
To my Aunt Sandra. Thank you. Your lively spirit is contagious. Your lessons live in all of us that have the good fortune of learning from you, more deeply rooted than you can ever imagine. But next time you go to clean out a freezer, can you make Molly do it?